November is sweeps month, when ratings help determine ad rates for a wide range of programming, including local news shows. As a result, stations ramp up the number of promos they run for their 'casts, with many of them touting assorted investigations. All too often, though, these supposed scoops are little more than sensationalized sound and fury. Take a November 14 piece about restaurant health inspections by Channel 31's Tom Martino. Since the reports are public records, Martino's staff merely had to look them up and then send their boss to problematic eateries in search of people to ambush. The results neatly sum up much of what's wrong with TV news.
In contrast, Channel 4's Brian Maass got it right with his November 19 presentation -- the first half of a two-part report about de-icing at Denver International Airport. Counting intros and outros, the story ran for nearly eight minutes, which is an eternity by local-television-news standards. Yet it made for riveting viewing, in part because it was about something important and timely -- the safety of flights during inclement weather.
Maass declared that Servisair, a company charged with de-icing planes for every airline at DIA other than United, was improperly training personnel tasked with this duty. Then he proved it with video shot by an undercover operative showing Servisair workers providing prospective employees with all the answers to tests about proper procedures. These newcomers were allowed to get each answer correct on quizzes for every carrier other than Continental, which apparently has a reputation for actually looking at the results. For that reason, the instructor gave his charges one incorrect answer on the Continental exam, under the theory that a bunch of 98 percent grades would look less suspicious than universal perfection.
There are potentially life-and-death consequences to such slackery, as Maass illustrated via footage of two crashes in which improper de-icing played a part. No wonder representatives of the Federal Aviation Administration are already poking into Servisair as a result of Channel 4's findings. Two Servisair execs looked mighty nervous during an interview segment with Maass, as well they should have.
Real investigations -- not the bogus sort conducted by Martino and his ilk -- are time consuming and expensive, which is why so many stations are getting away from them. Channel 4 deserves credit, then, for not only giving Maass the opportunity to dig up dirt but allotting enough air time for him to fully lay out the facts. If more outlets followed this approach, viewers might actually look forward to sweeps. -- Michael Roberts